To my Mother

 
You, who sorrowed so much, now being happy, see

The meaning of your life expressed eternally:

And what, I wonder, does it look like, if you laugh,

Instead of cry, at all the troubles which you had.

The many bills are ‘Paid with thanks’, but the hard hearts

Which you came up against on earth, do they seem bad,

Or simply small, the prison cells of early grief?

I think you see them as I see them, under art’s

Kind lighting, though I’ve torn up lines before I came

To see them as you see them, sad people all the same.

 

Your life explains itself to you, but I recount

This incident or that, as though the mere amount

Of things might have a meaning. If the exiled Queen

Of Serbia had the doors thrown open, talked to you,

While dining all alone, the Paris convent still

Invested with her vanished protocol, the scene

Says something up in Heaven but not here until

The emptiness of worldly majesty comes true.

My satisfaction that you knew her fades away:

Like yours, her sadness must have lasted day after day.

 

Why was your life so sorrowful, like music played

Over and over on the violin? (You paid

More than you could afford to try to have me taught.

And how I hated it! ‘Take your eyes off the clock

And keep them on the notes,’ the Russian teacher said.

Do you remember how the elevator stuck,

And we prayed for hours until the firemen finally brought

It safely down?) Was it because Grandfather was dead?

No, it had begun long before that. In childhood

You had, I think, been lost in some unloving wood.

 

But that is all forgiven and forgotten, and

Gently and lovingly you’d have me understand

I must forgive, and God will forever then forget

My sins, which caused you a different kind of grief. So

Often I say the Our Father, which you taught me, yet

So easily do not forgive. But why did God

Allow such things to happen, since they meant that no

Ordinary life would be my own? How the odd

Is hated by children, and by who more than me?

I can’t believe that some boys grew up happily.

 

But Christ, the blameless, suffered. I am forced to say

The troubles of my life are all deserved, since they

Balance a little bit the many selfish wrongs

I ran up, laughing, in the years between the time

I went away and then, so long, so long, came back,

Drawn by the prayers you said. Could I forget the songs

You sang before I fell asleep, ignore the rhyme

That lingered, which invoked Our Lady’s help? The sack

And ruin of my soul were never that complete:

You had stored secret treasures there against defeat.

 

You made the Church a great, triumphant, marble place,

Whose brilliant altars were cascades of light and lace,

Where the Latin rose and fell, imploring pity on

The fools who raged against the Apostolic See:

Caesar commands, the same sad Caesar swept away;

So too with king and doge and demagogue, all gone;

And still the Pope moves down the aisle of history.

At other moments, when we stopped, went in to pray,

The incense-laden darkness, warm and welcoming,

Wavered, where the red lamp burned, and God solved everything.

 

I was so easily the perfect altar-boy

That had the next step followed, had I left the toy

World, with its mass of valued junk, become a priest,

It would have seemed what you had longed for, yet I think

God was most merciful in those unanswered prayers.

He knew me as I was: rebellious, on the brink

Of the long wandering; saw me go off to the lost

Streets, the lonely luxe-hotels, the endless friendless bars,

And the all-night bookshop - the thief’s way to search

For love, and, lovingly, He kept me out of church.

 

Mother, this poem is more about myself than you.

But those who know me will not be surprised. I do

And say so little if I cannot somehow make

Myself the centre. Long ago those day-dreams did

Their work. So now, perhaps, I only write because

In childhood, underneath romantic masks, I hid

From being just myself. Books were my first mistake.

Or were they? Then they brought their paper peace, a pause

In the midst of worry. I have much to thank God for,

Not least the joy of reading. Writing helped still more.

 

You and my father both encouraged me to write.

I never had uncomprehending parents to fight,

Who wanted me drearily to make a fortune. You both

Had too much sense for that. How sad you could not get

On better together, did not understand each

Other. My father loved you, and you loved him, yet

That did not mean a peaceful family life. The truth,

I think, was that you both were brought up sternly, which

Made marriage hard for you. And so faults on either side,

For neither you nor he were saints, became magnified.

 

He was away so much at sea, and you, alone,

Were frightened, and you were ill so much. The tone

Of sorrow grew until it filled the house with all

The tremolos of heartbreak and dismay. A child

Who never had grown up, you could not dominate

Your life. And then the money went so fast. You smiled

And laughed at times. It’s easy to exaggerate

These memories of past troubles. But still I will not call

Upon Our Lady of Sorrows but of Joys, for you

Suffered so much, I hate to count her sorrows too.

 

She brought us both to Lourdes. For you had promised her

A pilgrimage when I was dying and there were

No doctors who would say I could get well. (So who

Can wonder that I have more trust in her than them?)

In that miraculous watering-place I loved the banked

Shops - Our Lady everywhere. You told me how her hymn

Rose up, spontaneous, from the thousands all around you

When, as a girl, you saw a cripple walk, and men linked

Arms to hold the crying crowds away. It's easy to see

God showed you that so you would pray with faith for me.

 

How all things work together, how He uses all

The small events of life to further plans that fall

Into their place so many years ahead, for past

And future, both are just as plain for Him to see

As what we are this minute: you, so safe at last,

Far from your fears and sorrows, loved and loving; I,

Still on the way. At times you seem so near. When we

Die, is it simply one short breath to Heaven? Does it lie,

Unseen, unfelt, beyond the senses, all around

Us? Are angels singing here without a sound?

 

These are the questions: you could give the answers now,

As when I used to have you work the problems, show

Me how A and B came home together, for it was

No use to ask my father, who got the answers right,

But with a slide-rule, or at once by calculus,

Or some such magic frowned on by the nuns at school.

You see all things just as they are, fixed in the light

Of God’s unending joy; you even see me now to scale:

Loved, yes, but only as God loves me, with His kind

Detachment, as you watch His image redesigned.

 

You are so near, and yet, it’s true, so far. The trip

May take a second, as the great air objects slip

At once away and out of sight and sound. But the dead

Are gone beyond our following, except by prayer,

Until we also leave the living, go on ahead

To join the always happy, always loving souls

Of those we knew and loved on earth. If I compare

That journey with the ones we used to take, my heart fails,

For I incline to think it will be vast and weird:

In fact, I shall be rushing home, all dangers cleared.

 

Do you remember when we left from Rome that day

And the Nuncio came to see us off and the whole way

To the train was carpeted in red, with groups of palms

On either side, and then the Cardinal, all en prince,

Appeared, attended by the railway people, and

Once we had departed, he came in, full of charm,

To our compartment, talked, and shared our picnic lunch,

And all went swimmingly until Loreto - the grand

Arrival, with the Bishop and the Canons there

At the station, and pious deference everywhere.

 

Only the Cardinal and ourselves had left the train.

We shared his glory: ‘Eminenza!’ and again

The scarlet figure gave the emerald ring to kiss,

Then, turning, brought us to the Bishop as his friends.

It was a moment, and God saw we kept it close

To our hearts forever, as the handsome suitcase

Bought in Rome burst open, strewing out not odds and ends,

But dirty laundry on the platform, and the chase

Began - Bishop and Canons vying to retrieve

The humble side of life which pride would have us leave.

 

How wonderful Loreto was! You used to hope

We might go back once more, climb up the so steep slope

To the basilica, and pray again at Mass

In the Santa Casa, where the Holy Family lived.

I still can see the Cardinal in those vestments flecked

With diamonds which some frightened king had given, pass,

The Bishop as his server, through the stone room paved

with the hidden footprints of Our Lord, to re-enact,

Like a village priest, the sacrifice on Calvary

Of God become a man, whom now you, Mother, see.

 

I wonder if the angels who took up one night

The Holy House from Nazareth and set it right

Down at that cross-roads on the stark Italian coast,

After the passing stay in Serbia, are the same

Angels who put the wooden replica in place

At Walsingham when the builders failed. The flame

Of love lights up Loreto, bathed in beauty, last

Home of Crashaw, driven with his poems to grace

A Canon’s stall, but Walsingham is ruins still,

Our Lady’s land, my own Loreto on the hill.

 

I think I am coming to the end of this last

letter to you, Dearest Mother, and the tears fall fast.

I know you’re happy and I know we’ll meet again

Soon in the perfect peace which you and Dad enjoy.

So many memories throng around me, bring their sad

Happiness, as though I found again the loved toys

You had me give the poor, to whom you were so good -

Especially beggars on the street. You would explain

To me that they might very likely be Our Lord.

When people talked against them, you would not hear a word.

 

How many lasting things I have to thank you for!

The most important presents are the ones I more

Or less ignored, which now have brought their beauty out.

There was the picture of the Sacred Heart you had,

With the red vigil light that burnt, to Dad’s alarm,

Among the silver on your dressing table, about

To set fire, he thought, to everything, which now can warm

A little bit my heart, and then there was the glued

Together statue of Our Blessed Mother, whose

Lovely face and gentleness make her my only muse.

 

There is so much to say, so little room in which

To say it, for the best poem is a shallow niche

To put around your goodness. No one knows but God

How many kindnesses you did. The prisoners got,

For thirty years in secret, things to read, and when

They found your name out by mistake, the chaplain said

You helped so many when they came to die. A lot

Of friends were waiting, with lamps alight, in Heaven, then,

To share their happiness with you and Dad, who both

Have all my love and thanks for giving me the Faith.